Lighting a booth is such a difficult topic to cover, I was kinda hoping to sneak out the back while you were reading the other essays in this series.
But that would be wrong. And I promise that’s the last time I quote Richard Nixon in this series.
There is so much I don’t know about lighting. I’m not going to even attempt to cover wavelengths and warm and cool colors, except that halogen has a brighter look to it than most incandecent bulbs which are usually yellowish. Though sometimes those cases of cheap halogen bulbs you can buy on eBay can be yellowish, too. (Think cheap lighting at Salvation Army stores….) And I would say never use fluorescent bulbs, except the newer, daylight-quality bulbs are pretty nice. And I have no idea which bulbs work well with jewelry and precious stones, and which ones work with textiles. There are wiser minds than mine you can listen to when it comes to the tech side of lighting.
I also don’t do outdoor shows. So I don’t have any information on powering lights if it’s not already provided for you by show management. Sorry!!
So as always, I will simply share what has and has not worked for me.
TO LIGHT, OR NOT TO LIGHT…??
Why should you light your booth, anyway? Especially if you have an outdoor booth. Isn’t plain ol’ sunlight good enough?
I think you’ll find even a little extra lighting in a sunny booth is a good thing. You will always have either dark corners or dark times of the day. And once that sun hides behind a cloud, you’ll wish you’d figured out a way to get some extra lighting on your goods.
Even more importantly, good lighting creates drama, focus and movement in your tent. Light something up, and that’s what people will look at.
Lighting lets people actually see what you’re selling, so they can decide if it’s the right color, quality, texture they’re looking for.
Lighting makes people relax and feel comfortable in your booth. We are not little bat people–we still tend to mistrust the dark. We gravitate towards bright spaces and feel safer there.
HOW MUCH LIGHT?
Most people are perfectly happy with 500 watts of light. But that’s only ten 50-watt lamps. If you only have wall art, or you only have ten items to illuminate, that might suffice.
My problem in my booth is I need wall display for my 2-D fiber wall hangings, shelf display for my sculptures, and case display for my jewelry. Ten lamps gives me a light fixture every three feet in the booth, with one left over. Not enough. I almost always go for 1,000 watts in my outdoor-under-tents 10’x10′ booth. And at wholesale shows, I’ll spring for 1,500 to 2,000. That gives lots of light to play with, even allowing me to devote 2-3 lights to a single wall hanging if I want to. (And since some of them are seven-to-eight feet tall, they need more than one light….!)
HOW NOT TO LIGHT
One of the most common mistakes I see is people putting up some sort of light bar across the top and front of their booth, then shining five or six lamps down into their booth. The effect is a giant spotlight, and looks okay–until someone steps inside your booth. Now all the lighting is behind them. Wherever they look, whatever they look at, is in shadow.
Now the worst part. They turn around to ask you a question–and they are instantly blinded by the light.
I’ve found the best people to assist me with setting up my lights are my daughter and her friends who have some tech crew experience in their drama club. They understand how to use lighting to highlight and accent what you want noticed on your “set”. And a set is an excellent metaphor for how to think about your booth.
THE BEST LIGHTS ARE….???
What are the best lights?
I’m not going there, but I’ve had five different systems. You are free to pick and choose from the good, the bad and the ugly of my set-ups.
Track lighting is nice because it’s versatile. You can buy as many units as you need, and if you buy from someplace like Home Depot, you can always buy extra units and replacements if you need to. There’s almost always a Home Depot around… You can buy all kinds of lamp units to suit your needs and style, and most of them come in at least two colors, white or black, to go with your booth.
The basic problem with track lighting is it wasn’t designed to be put up and taken down over, and over, and over again. It wasn’t designed to be used outside, in the rain and heat and cold. It wasn’t designed to be held in place with cable ties. Originally, you couldn’t even buy it with plug-in cords. It was meant to be hard-wired in place, in your office or home. My first sets had to be rewired with extension cords with plugs.
My first lighting set-up was an expensive set of low-voltage track lighting from a very popular on-line lighting company, supposedly marketing to the craft show industry. The track was actually pretty good quality. I had issues with the low-voltage lamp units from day one. They were so heavy, they would actually pull apart under their own weight. I was constantly having to strap them back together with cable ties. I think they are still upstairs in my barn attic somewhere.
BWT, here’s common misconception about low-voltage lighting–you are NOT using less wattage! This is a very layman explanation, but wattage is the AMOUNT of electricity/energy you are using. Voltage is how hard and fast that electricity/energy coming through your set-up. It’s sort of like water coming through a squirt bottle in a fine, hard stream that travels 15 feet, and a wide, fine misty spray. Same amount of water coming through. So don’t think you are going to pay for 500 watts of electricity and you can put up 1,000 watts of low-voltage units/lamps. If you have 1,000 watts’ worth of bulbs, you are using 1,000 watts of energy. The low-voltage thing is a safety issue, not an energy conservation issue.
In fact, in low-voltage units, that extra energy is dissipated in the transformers in the form of heat. I’m told that build-up of heat can be a source of some of the problems I experienced with low-voltage systems.
I’m also told that other kinds of transmissions can interfere with low-voltage set-ups, like if someone in the next booth at a big trade show is using a TV in their display. I have no idea if that is true. Maybe a techie person can research that and report back. I do know that my system would work beautifully at one show and totally conk out at the next.
My second set of low-voltage track came from Home Depot. I had the same issues with reliability, but fewer than I did with the expensive mail-order set.
In my third set of track lighting, I decided to skip the cheap made-in-China stuff and invest in good-quality lamps. That’s when I found that a) everything electrical is now made in China and b) expensive means H-E-A-V-Y. I set up my brand new units for the first time at a wholesale craft show, on my angle irons I used for supports–and watched the angle irons actually bend under the weight of the new lamps. There was no time to search for other supports, so I had to just strap the track onto the top poles of my pole-and-drapes booth.
The track is NOT sturdy enough to just suspend with lamps in it–you MUST have something to attach it to to span across your booth. Some people always install their track lighting this way, but I found it limiting. Also somewhat unsafe–your neighbor goes to hang their own drapes or display from those S-hooks that go over the pipe, and can actually stick their S-hook right into your track. ZAP!!!
That issue of finding what was sturdy enough to hold track lighting, long enough to span my booth, yet short enough to carry or ship to shows without incurring extra shipping charges, also kept me awake many, many nights.
For a long time, I used angle irons, which you can buy at any full-service hardware or lumber store, or places like Lowe’s or Home Depot.. Angle irons are perforated metal bars, L-shaped in profile, that can be bolted together to get the length you need. Then you can take them apart into shorter lengths for easier packing and shipping. They come in two weights, and I found out the hard way that the heavier weight is needed for most track lighting. It’s also nice because it provides a flat surface to strap the track onto, for more stability.
Some people use those extendable, telescoping metal “handles” for attaching to paint rollers for painting ceilings. I worried because they looked like they wouldn’t be strong enough to hold track, and they were round–so you would have round pipe attaching to round pipe. But it might be worth the experiment. Other people have used lengths of electrical conduit. I’ve seen it, I’ve never used it. And I can’t remember what I thought of it. Rats, I was hoping to get through this paragraph without admitting that…. Again, it doesn’t break down into smaller lengths, so be aware of this if you have to ship your booth.
My nice new MD ProPanel booth has stabilizer bars which “lock” the walls together and keep it…well, stable. These also double as light bars. YAY!!!!
I eventually went back to Home Depot track lighting, using their new long goose-neck lamps. They are small, lightweight and infinitely flexible. I LOVE them. One caveat–they hang down into your booth about a foot. So if your booth is seven feet tall (about industry standard) and your track is attached at seven feet, and the lamps hang down a foot….you are going to burn people who are over six feet tall. Just so you know. You can see these dangling lights in this image of last year’s booth at the LNHC fair. Don’t bump your head! (I fixed that this year.)
Also, as you insert, remove, reinsert and remove lamps from your track, you are constantly squishing apart the track. Eventually, it deforms enough that your lamps will not make good contact with the track. You may have to strap cable ties around the track itself and squinch it down good and tight to hold it together.
Look at the end where you screw in a screw to hold that plug-in extension cord. That can be another trouble source. You want that screw tight enough to hold the unit snugly. But again, if you screw it in too tight, you will actually force the track unit apart slightly. Enough to lose that electrical connection. And again, a cable tie strapped tightly around that section of the track may help hold things together.
If you use your track lighting outside a lot, you may get a build-up of corrosion on the contact points (the long thin copper strips in your track, the little copper clips in your lamps.) Keep a piece of steel wool on hand to scrub these contact points clean if you’re having trouble getting your lights to work. (Unplug everything first, of course.)
At one point, I invested in expensive clamp-on halogen wall-washers. They were designed to work on pole-and-drape. (Pole-and-drape are difficult to work with, because clamps are usually designed to hold onto something flat, and poles are round.) Unfortunately, it turned out they didn’t really work well on poles or flat walls.
AND THE WINNER IS….
I’ve now discovered individual clamp-on goose-neck lamp units. They each have their own extension cords, which is a bit of a hassle. But I also don’t have to fuss with track, track lamps, light bars to support the track and risers to raise the light bars out of range of six-feet tall people (or shorter people with tall hair.) So far, my favorite units are these offered by Pegasus Lighting: Flexible Display Light I am praying the low voltage issue does not raise its ugly head again.
These lights are good because they can light work on a shelf or on the wall, and be between the customer and the work–no shadows. But they also don’t shine in people’s eyes. They are infinitely flexible. I was able to use them at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which has a strict lighting safety code–although the cords/plug aren’t grounded, they are low voltage and self-contained. One light per cord. Also, the halogen bulbs are covered–there is a layer of glass across the front of the bulb, so the halogen filament is not exposed. The C-clamp is very secure on flat surfaces, and the cord is long enough to reach most of the places it needs to.
How do I know these are the best lights? My daughter says if I stick with the MD ProPanels and these lights, she will always come home to help me set up my booth for shows.
Unfortunately, I’m still on a quest for the perfect case lighting. I have light strips I bought with my original Dynamic Display System cases, with all three of the light bulb styles they’ve sold over time. Dynamic Display Systems case lighting The little “eyeball” units are the most versatile–they rotate in every direction and allow you to pinpoint an item in the case. But they are outrageously expensive, and it’s hard to find replacement bulbs. And the metallic backing paint is chipping off, allowing the brilliant halogen bulb to glare through. When I inquired about heat-proof paint to recoat the unit, I was told the paint would severely cut down on the life of the bulb. OY VEY!!! I don’t see these for sale on their website anymore, just the strips with the little 20 watt halogen bulbs. These are good, reliable bulbs, and easily found at stores. Okay, relatively easy to find. But they are not directional, or at least minimally so. I did love my eyeball bulbs….
Use the heaviest gauge extension cords recommended by the show. 14 gauge is getting to be more and more common, but can still be hard to find. (Just because a cord is really thick doesn’t mean it’s 14 gauge.) Use the shortest cord you can get away with–cord that is coiled that cause heat to build up, which isn’t good.
If you are doing an outdoor show, keep all your connections off the ground. This will keep rain, dew, other moisture from shorting out the system.
If the show provides electricity and is using GFI’s do NOT attempt to circumvent them. During set-up at my big retail show, people complain constantly that the lights keep going out. As they plug in their cobbled-together lighting systems, the ground fault interrupters trip, cutting off power. They say, “The GFI’s are so damn sensitive!” As the show electrician carefully explained to me during my very first show, “Yes, GFI’s are sensitive. They trip at the very slightest flare in power. That’s what they are supposed to do. It keeps you from being electrocuted.” Get your lights set up, and test the circuit by plugging in a light then turning it on (rather than just screwing in a light into a live circuit, such as sticking a lamp into a track unit that’s live.” That helps prevent a little surge of power that triggers the GFI.
Use 3-prong plugs wherever you can. Sometimes it’s impossible, and some convention halls prohibit rewiring your own lighting set-up (like I did to rewire my two-wire extension cords to make 3-wire plug-in extension cords for my track lighting.) And always look for that “UL” (Underwriters Laboratories) label to signify your system has passed some basic safety testing. Here’s an interesting article on what that label means and how to recognize fake labels: Understanding UL by Gerry Zekowski
Remember that lights get HOT, especially halogen bulbs. Turn off and let cool before touching, handling, repositioning a hot lamp. Do not touch a halogen bulb (the part that actually lights up) with your fingers–the oil in your fingertips can actually concentrate the heat and cause the bulb to break. And periodically check your lamps to make sure they aren’t touching fabric or other combustibles, or causing your display to overheat and actually melt.
Lights themselves are hot, too. As I said earlier, I try to always go with at least 1,000 watts of lighting in my 10’x10′ booth. But I’m learning not to go over that much in my outdoor-under-tents August show. It just gets to be too much heat.
ALWAYS, ALWAYS ALWAYS unplug your units when doing any kind of work on them. I like to even unplug the units when testing my lamps. It takes a few more seconds, but if your hand should slip, or in your set-up frenzy mood you should forget and stick your hand in the track, you will stay safe. Yes, those pesky GFI’s should save you, but why take the chance?
Have I forgotten anything? Tons, I’m sure. I’ll check back and add stuff as I think of it.
Ooh, I forgot this: If you use low-voltage lamps or little case lights, they come with transformers–just like your phone charger. Transformers take up a lot of space on your surge strips. A power squid is handy to conserve space, or I use a set of short little 12″ extension cords, both from Herrington Catalog: power squid and
And be sure to add your own suggestions and experiences in the comments section. Together, we can keep our fair booths looking bright and shiny–and safe.